What is evident in the Birmingham schools debate is a growing intolerance of the idea of educating children in faith
I was a muscular liberal once. But I’ve let myself go a bit recently. Whereas once I would have responded to the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal of Islamist schools with a knowing nod and a pre-prepared lecture on the need to secularise our public realm, now I am capable only of nervousness about what may be to come.
Why? Well, because the real Trojan Horse here is not the one that it has been claimed has been used by fundamentalists to take over state schools in Birmingham. It’s the one used to give cover to those who wish to destroy this country’s tradition of funding, and celebrating, faith schools. The real entryists are those pretending that the problem is educational institutions founded in faith.
Let’s be clear: what is claimed to have happened at six Birmingham schools is unacceptable. The imposition not of Islam but of a particular, chauvinist and politicised version of that faith on children cannot be right. That this alleged corruption went on beneath the noses of public servants, and was paid for by public funds, makes it all the more disturbing. But the answer here is not more hand-wringing about the role of religion in educating our children – it is a radical expansion of our faith school sector.
Not one of the schools singled out for concern is a faith school. You wouldn’t know that from most of the coverage, but it is true nonetheless – every single one of the problematic schools is a supposedly secular state institution. That makes sense when you bother to think about it. Faith schools operate under a framework of scrutiny and oversight and as part of a wider religious network – that makes extremism difficult.
The Islamist plotters said to be behind attempts to disrupt and corrupt education in Birmingham wanted to lurk in the shadows and exercise control in the dark. It seems they wanted to be hidden from public view as they pursued their sinister agenda. They were seemingly able to get away with that because of poor oversight from the Department for Education (DfE) and its agencies. And because parents were clearly crying out for schools with a religious ethos and a Muslim character.
In the confusion, with so much unsaid, Islamists have apparently been able to promote a medieval way of life among children while masquerading to thew DfE as ordinary do-gooders and to parents as ordinary Muslims. We need faith schools – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish – to bridge that gap. They can fill the hole in educational demand, give parents what they want and they operate in the open – where daylight and transparency make them less vulnerable to the whims of fundamentalists.
And, of course, they’re better. We all know that faith schools consistently out perform their non-religious counterparts. Why else would canny middle class parents go to such lengths (and expense) to snap up houses in their catchment areas? While the case for faith schools rests not on attainment but on the right of parents to educate their children in an ethos that they admire, the fact is that most children do better in a religious school. And, when it comes to the crunch, all but the most irritatingly trendy mums and dads can see that – at the very least – there’s no harm in little Noah and Nora learning about God. It’s funny how folk’s discomfort with faith flies out the window when it comes to finding a school for their children. But it’s also encouraging. Because in the end we all want the best for our kids and, if house prices and application rates are anything to go by, even in this secular age we know deep down that what’s best is a school with God at its heart.
But there aren’t enough of them. Faith schools are massively oversubscribed and horribly under-available. And they isn’t a diverse enough range. One of the best things Tony Blair ever did was allow state funding for Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools – but not enough of them have opened. I want to live in a world where some white, atheist parents fake mosque attendance and have the imam over to dinner in the hope of getting their little darling into the local Muslim school. Then we’ll know that we finally have the range and the breadth of educational choices that we need.
And what of extremists? Two points. First, careful what you wish for. One man’s extremist is another’s saviour. Evident in this debate is a growing intolerance of the very idea of educating our children in faith. “Stop indoctrinating kids” goes the mantra – as though all education were not, in one way or another, instruction in a particular way of life. Today they tell you the veil is unacceptable and must be banned. Tomorrow it will be the crucifix.
Second, let’s not get too hung up on all this. At my C of E primary there were some staff with exceptionally funny views – I coped. We are right to be worried about concerted efforts to take control of schools but wrong, I think, to obsess over the politics of individual teachers. The occasional batty Marxist or dour Presbyterian is not going to shape, permanently, a child’s outlook on life. There’s plenty of time for children to rebel once they are no longer children – I don’t like Steinbeck (too twee for my liking) but I don’t feel harmed by the fact I was taught him as a teenager. Richard Dawkins went to an Anglican school, I think it is safe to say that his “indoctrination” did not go according to plan.
There is a marked difference between a school whose governance structure had destabilised and fallen into the hands of the corrupt and a school with unfashionable values – let’s not confuse them. Where once, back when I was all muscly and liberal, I would have shouted ‘down with this sort of thing’ and waved a secularist placard, now I know that we can be calm, patient and accepting of the differences. That, surely, is what we mean when we talk of “British values” after all?
The uncomfortable truth for those with whom I once agreed is this – what is said to have happened in Birmingham is the result of too few faith schools, not too many. We have failed to give religious parents from minority faiths the options that they desire when it comes to how and where they educate their children. And so we have pushed them to seek out informal solutions. Often, ones backed and designed by people with less than pure motives. After all, it is only ever likely to be the peculiarly driven and the warped who can be bothered to spend a decade surreptitiously and gradually gaining control of a primary school.
Give Brummies explicitly Muslim schools – plenty of them – and watch this issue disappear overnight.
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